Retrospective VI

from 08.02.2001 to 03.03.2001

Heinz Cibulka

The Genesis of the Image
On Heinz Cibulka's Photo-Artistic Work from 1972 to 2000. By Kurt Kaindl

From: Fotogalerie Wien (Pub.), Werkschau VI : Heinz Cibulka, Wien, Triton Verlag 2001
Translation: Susanne Steinacher

"Right from the beginning, since I had been a student at the Training College for Photography and Graphic Design, I have been dreaming of shaping my life by artistic activities – and that's what I have been striving for later in life." (H.C. "Material Bild", Vienna 1993, p. 20). With these words Heinz Cibulka introduces a detailed account of his life and work as an artist in the catalogue "Bild Material", published in 1993 by the State Museum of Lower Austria. This catalogue and the related exhibition provide deep insights in Cibulka's artistic work. His quest for form, for meaningful ways of structuring his works (something which in the past might have been referred to as harmony or correspondence) took ten years' time in which he experimented with numerous artistic approaches, dealing inter alia with actionism and Peter Kubelka's cinematic work. As is often the case, his personal acquaintance and, finally, cooperation with these artists was of decisive importance for his own development. The performance of "Stammersdorf" at forum stadtpark in Graz in 1972 was his first opportunity to formulate the basic elements of his artistic work: his contribution consisted of a photo frieze of individual black and white photographs along the walls of the gallery, constructing a scene from a wine inn in the exhibition space and featuring typical meals offered at such an inn. Transcripts of typical conversations were laid out on the tables. Integrated features of this spatial design were, to some extent, the preparing of meals as well as and deliberate celebration with the effect that each visitor became a part of the celebration and thus of the artistic work itself.

In order to understand Heinz Cibulka's photographic work, it is essential to be aware of this comprehensive artistic claim, since the integration of the "dream of a synthesis of the arts" is a repeated feature in his works, as Edith Almhofer has quite rightly observed (H.C. "aus nachbars garten", year of publication unknown). Actions, performances, objects and object images, lyrical and conceptual texts, films and photographic shows with soundtracks, collections of materials and texts and, of course, photo cycles are the essential forms of presentation Heinz Cibulka chooses for his work. For a long time, he considered photography itself to be lacking sensuousness, since the technical, haptic relation to the world is of substantial importance to him. Again and again he engages in a "struggle against mental picture-taking, against insubstantial expression" (H.C. "Material Bild", Vienna 1993, p. 43). Heinz Cibulka shares this aim with the actionists who, like him, endeavour to overcome the panel in favour of a process-like way of exercising art vis-?-vis life. In his Viennese diaries, Günter Brus says about the claims on artistic form that "[ should] virtually resolve the image and elevate it to the level of being a clip of the world – but this world should, how can I say, it should contain set signals, rhythmics, screaming, sleep, bean soup, the dachshund, the typhoon, the endless melody, etc. etc." (quoted from Dieter Schwarz "Aktionsmalerei – Aktionismus. Wien 1960-1965", Zurich 1988, p. 22).

It is not difficult to see that Heinz Cibulka's conception of his now famous blocks of four colour photographs are the ideal fulfilment of Günter Brus's claim. In his photo poems, Cibulka combines completely contrasting pictorial elements on one sheet with no trouble at all. And in fact it is characteristic of his most formulated photographic works, such as the "Gemischter Satz" edition (1982 and 1987), that extremely contrasting clips of reality are forced into one and the same formal unit – clips of reality which can no longer be delimited in terms of subject matter and which, in the end, celebrate life itself.

About 10 years before these highly developed photo poems were published, Heinz Cibulka discovered the combination of groups of four colour photographs, based on the "Stammersdorf" design (Graz 1972), as the adequate form of his artistic work. For a re-staging of this project in Vienna, he strove to increase the density for his photo friezes, compiling the first "Stammersdorf" edition of blocks of four colour photographs. Apart from the influence of actionism on his perception of art, the form of his photo poems has several other sources, too, which also help explain the great success of this piece of work. These photo poems constituted a clear break with the dominant mainstream of artistic photography at the time, since Cibulka gave up the complex and designed individual photograph and, instead, turned to producing deliberately simply viewed colour images he then had developed automatically without any special precautions. Following Peter Kubelka's suggestions for film, Heinz Cibulka aimed at articulation in-between cadres, in other words: in-between individual photographs. The participation of the observer, who had to read and combine the images like the words of a poem, now became decisive for the creation of meaning. The title "Land – Alphabete" (Vienna 1983) is programmatic for this approach. This book is a first retrospective of Heinz Cibulka's photographic work. Observers would always discover new concrete forms in these photo poems, which the author had charged with a certain basic message. This basic meaning was supported by the leitmotif-like repetition of objects and situations from the fields of religion, food, metabolism, sexuality and on one specific topic per edition. In the beginning, these topics stemmed, above all, from his immediate rural surroundings and experience (e.g. in the editions "Brdo – Berda" 1976, "Most – Fühlt" 1982, "Hochgebirgsquartette" 1984 and 1986); later, urban surroundings became more important (e.g. in the editions " Wien" 1984, 1986 and 1987, "Berlin – Empfindungskomplexe" 1985 and "Antwerpen" 1991-92).

An analysis of Cibulka's works would not be complete without mentioning his way of dealing with texts. There is an inseparable connection between image and text based on the fact that historically, writing developed from images. This is even more true for works such as Heinz Cibulka's photo poems, which operate with the props of human experience and are, in the end, inserted into the "grammar" of a certain pictorial grid.
Of course the book is the ideal medium to combine image and writing. In the volumes "Bauernlieder" (Linz 1981) and "Land – Alphabete" (Vienna 1983), the dominance of writing becomes particularly clear. Next to detailed collections of words, we find poems that take up the modes of procedure of concrete poetry and of image poems in the baroque sense. There is a perfect correspondence between photo poems and text poems, not only in conceptual terms. It is characteristic of all these texts that they are no narratives, but collections of material that evoke certain associations by the way they are arranged and by the reappearing of certain leitmotif-like topics. This is in correspondence to Cibulka's photo sheets, which must not be misunderstood as "photo stories." Since the publication of "aus nachbars Garten", documenting a walking tour from his home town to Prague in the summer of 1994, his way of dealing with texts has changed radically. In this context, editor Edith Almhofer remarks, "The position of the author is no longer anonymous. In fact, the dangers of this journey and the fates of the travellers themselves seep into this work as subject and motif." (H.C. "aus nachbars garten", Gumpoldskirchen/Vienna, year of publication unknown). Detailed diary entries accompany the photographs in the book. In line with the concept of diary entries, the focus is thus on the author as the story's subject and on the photographer as the producer of the images. The story's epic construction is thus realised at all levels. Like in a collection of materials, texts are now pasted into the book like found objects and thus cease to be poetically set parts of the work as a whole. Underlying the narrative text, leaflets, sketches and pages from telephone books can be found as direct quotes from reality. They become transparent, revealing the author's experience and perception. This move indicated a mode of procedure that was to become a basic element in Cibulka's new photo works, which involve digital manipulation. In his latest publication, "Chinoiserie" (Gumpoldskirchen/Vienna 2000), he also uses the form of the diary to textually supplement his photographic work.

Even if photo poems like "Gemischter Satz" (1982 and 1987), where the individual photographs were not taken with a certain subject in mind but rather combined from Heinz Cibulka's archive, are indeed convincing from a formal point of view, they are exceptional in terms of his artistic mode of procedure. As he pointed out himself, a photo archive cannot be used like a photo quarry ("Foto – Steinbruch") to constantly produce new contents and messages. Taking photographs always also involves a certain topic and a certain basic attitude of the author to his subject that prevents him from using the same photograph again and again. Doing this would imply that his work was arbitrary. This experience also shows that the popular analogy of word and photograph on the one hand, and message and photo poem on the other is not entirely balanced. A word can in fact be used in many different abstract contexts. The photos Heinz Cibulka produces in the course of his projects, however, carry too much meaning to be freely rearranged like words that form a new sentence. Understanding photographs or works based on imagery requires a certain context the photographer produces during his research on the subject and which he delivers along with the photographs. This discovery becomes particularly clear now as Heinz Cibulka presents his first collage-like works. Released on the computer, these overlapping collage images appear to be transparent on several levels. They will be examined more closely in the following.

Hanno Millesi pointed out that Heinz Cibulka uses his photo poems to formulate new statements, that he approaches a subject by way of his series of photo sheets, even though every single photograph, "each clip ?can be?, at any time, retranslated by the recipient and/or identified as a distinct, clearly distinguishable point of vision." (H.C. "Chinoiserie", Gumpoldskirchen/Vienna 2000, p. 8). In his publication "mex 01-12" (Vienna 1999) Heinz Cibulka presented digital photo collages that deviate from this principle of composition. The individual photo elements are now isolated from their surroundings, clipped and edited with the help of a wide range of computer programmes such as "PhotoShop." Thus, the individual photograph and its reference to reality have ceased to exist in Cibulka’s works. In a very radical form he is now able to assemble, compress and overlap photo elements. Articulation no longer happens between the individual photographs but once again takes place on the level of the panel, which is enriched with visual stimuli.

Cibulka continues this art form in his later work "Chinoiserie" (2000), focusing on the subject of a journey to China. This work is completed by a diary-like text. In the preface, Hanno Millesi writes that "the photographic result reminds us of a dream picture or at least the idea of a dream picture that gathers and combines all the details stored in our memory" (H.C. "Chinoiserie", Gumpoldskirchen/Vienna 2000, p. 8). Metaphoric photography "refers the viewer back to the genesis of the photograph, rendering transparent the process of perception" (Kurt Kaindl in: H.C. "Weinviertler Bildersetzkasten", Mistelbach 1990, p.15) ? in Cibulka's digital photo collages, however, it is no longer useful to examine individual photo elements as to their reference to reality. An entirely different concept of perception must be applied to these collages, which can be traced back in history to the "technical images" produced by 19th century "machines of perception" such as the kaleidoscope, stroboscope or Zootrope.

The renowned media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said about the relation between technology and mankind, "First we shape our tools and then they shape us" (free rendering). The history of the above-mentioned machines of perception can be viewed from this perspective. At the beginning of the 19th century, when – in parallel to the invention of photography – the theory of persistence of vision was developed (in 1824 by Peter Mark Roget), people's interest turned to so-called "philosophical toys" that exploit this effect. In the case of the stroboscope, for instance, drawings of movements painted on a disc were viewed through the slots of a second, rotating disc so that the images' persistence on the retina generated the illusion of a moving image. Quite rightly, this stroboscopic effect is regarded as one of the fundamental principles of film which was, in fact, not to be invented before the end of the century. In the meantime, however, these perceptive-psychological phenomena were being enthusiastically investigated and soon became very popular as toys for adults, influencing human perception of reality in a decisive way. As simple as these image machines may have been, they outlined – for the first time – a specific order of the imaginary, sketching previously unseen spaces and movements. Their constitutive elements were simple drawings and moving parts, yet they produced a new world of images, spaces and perspectives extending beyond the individual components. In a certain way, the image now originated inside the observer (whose senses were fooled by the after-image effect), thus establishing the beholder, not the image, as the focus of interest. This process may be described as the disempowerment of the human eye and the fragmentation of a fixed focus. This new focus (besides other elements) became manifest both in the end of the central perspective, which had long been dominant in painting, and in the invention of film with its alternating perspectives. It also had an influence on the change in literary narrative. This brief outline of an event of such enormous historico-cultural importance should suffice to establish a connection to the computer and to computer-based image processing programmes. It is not difficult to realise that the computer belongs to the current generation of "machines of the imaginary."

Heinz Cibulka’s digital collages (as well as, of course, comparable works by his fellow artists) clearly demonstrate this disempowerment of the human eye. Depending on the choice of the dominating background image, both wide spaces in skyscraper-lined streets and macro views of a flower's blossom can serve as the "stage" for a collage that is dominated by highly differentiated objects, out of context and without any formal restrictions. Not only photographs, but also characters, reproductions of other media events or any other visual sources are merged into these collages. Context and meaning now once again depend much more on the author, whose choice of image objects defines the atmosphere and reading direction. It is interesting to note that in his work "Chinoiserie" Heinz Cibulka attempts to deliver statements that contradict customers' intention to portray a land of "representative highlights." The digital collage provides Cibulka with the means to do so.

In his work "Geschichtes Gedicht", produced in 2000 for the exhibition "Milch vom ultrablauen Strom. Strategien österreichischer Künstler 1960-2000" (Kunsthalle Krems, curator: Wolfgang Denk), the digital collage is developed further. The collages are large-size friezes that employ all kinds of image sources without any restrictions. Paintings and writings dominate over photographs, with each of the collages addressing one specific subject which is also identified by their basic aesthetic structure. Here, the fragmentation of the fixed perspective is carried to extremes: the individual photo elements become part of a general conception which can no longer be undone in a meaningful manner. Thus, a new web of images emerges on the computer which can only be deciphered with reference to Heinz Cibulka's detailed photo titles. The tools we have been using have changed the way we perceive such collages today.

Looking at the way Heinz Cibulka's conception of art developed, it becomes clear that his artistic work has been entering the observer’s awareness in ever-changing ways. Symbolically, we could say that the place where his pictures became concrete has repeatedly been shifted. In earlier actions and performances the observers themselves, guided by the artist’s instruction, had to create the image in their own minds. Quite frequently, the viewer was part of the work of art. Through the use of photography, Cibulka's imagery-based works reached a higher degree of abstraction. His photo compositions were, in fact, instructions for perception given by the artist. In numerous publications (such as "Nationalpark Hohe Tauern" or "Weinviertler Bilder ? Setzkasten") Cibulka repeatedly referred to this grammar of images and to the art of reading them. In his digital collages, the photographer uses the computer to generate the individual elements, presenting them to the audience as a dense fabric of images. These works clearly show the hand-writing of Heinz Cibulka who thus, once again, presents a panel based on an extremely consistent and comprehensive artistic design.

The development of Heinz Cibulka’s work could also be described as an attempt to integrate larger and larger, and ever more disparate, parts of reality into his work. In his digital collages he is now able to seamlessly incorporate any possible visual event and yet attain the most coherent way of representation his work has ever encountered.